Optimism is not a word that one associates with European history. It is certainly not a word that one normally associates with Germany. Yet this weekend marked the 25th anniversary of one of the most optimistic events of modern times — the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The opening of the militarized border that ran between Western Europe and Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe and gutted the heart of Berlin, which Winston Churchill famously called an Iron Curtain, was not the end of the Cold War — that would come with the fall of the Soviet Union in December 1991— but it certainly accelerated change in that direction. It gave hope and impetus to the unfolding ‘Velvet Revolution’ in Czechoslovakia, strengthened movements for change in Poland and Hungary and helped to ignite events in Romania. The fall of the Berlin Wall was a peaceful event in a peaceful East German citizens’ revolution. As such, it can be seen as the founding event that created today’s Germany. It was certainly the best political event that Germany has ever produced.
The fall of the Wall was for my generation that experience that indelibly marked time and space. It was our moon walk, our JFK moment. Everyone remembered what they had been doing when they learned the news. I had been in a graduate seminar on modern German history, of all things, when the news sent us all rushing to the nearest television. The images of jubilant crowds embracing and dancing on a symbol of death and division made history seem light as a feather. It made even the most pessimistic observer believe in change.
Starting in the mid-1990s I used to ask my students what they were doing when they heard the news of the fall of the Berlin Wall. ‘Doing the dinner dishes,’ some responded, ‘playing outside,’ said others. They had been 11 and 12 at the time and had heard the news with their families. Most remembered watching television with their parents. It was, for many, their first political ‘flashbulb’ moment, those images that stay marked in the mind.
As the years passed the students got younger, and the answers were no longer about immediate experience. My current students were not alive when the Wall came down and can’t know in the same way how that symbol resonated, how physical the division had been and how frightening the Cold War often was.
One of the odd paradoxes of the Wall was the different faces it presented to East and West. On the western side it was imposing enough: three metres of ugly pre-fabricated concrete that ran as far as the eye could see. Yet the exuberant graffiti which covered it with layers of commentary, obscenity and colour, humanized the structure. Moreover on the western side one could approach it — you could lay your hands on it — and most people did.
When I first saw the Wall in 1987 as an exchange student in West Berlin, I did what everyone instinctively seemed to do: You walked toward it, and placed your hands flat on it. You thought, this is it? This is THE Berlin Wall? It seemed both massive and mundane, a kind of mind boggling barrier.
On the eastern side, it was another story entirely. There the Wall had a radically different face. Scrubbed white and devoid of graffiti, it was untouchable, unapproachable. Its guard towers and barbed wire made you pay attention. They were supplemented with searchlights, dogs, a death strip and a shoot to kill order. Those East German citizens who walked resolutely toward the Wall on the night of Nov. 9, 1989, were certainly courageous. For it was unsure — until the last moment — whether their fate would be different from those 138 Berlin citizens who had died at the Wall in the 28 years of its existence.
This time it was different.
This time they could pass through the crossing. And the Wall’s reign of terror was over.
For the celebration in Berlin this past Sunday night, an art installation of 7,000 large illuminated white balloons marked the course of the Wall as it snaked through and around the city. Called the “border of light,” it was certainly inspired.
As the balloons rose one by one into the night sky, a once profound physical barrier lifted up and disappeared. “All that was solid, melted into air” in the words of the Communist Manifesto.
Karl Marx would have been proud.